On Diversity in Conferences

Warning This article was written over six months ago, and may contain outdated information.

Previously… Edge Conference released their panellist lineup, and it was exclusively white male at the time of announcement. This didn’t go down well in some quarters. Matt Andrews wrote Diversity in tech: still an issue in 2013? and many supportive and dismayed tweets followed.

I’m not here to defend Edge Conf but I hope that as someone who speaks at conferences I can add a little something to the debate. Obviously being a white, male, conference speaker I have some self-interest in this, but I also hope that doesn’t preclude me from having an opinion; I’ve already had one reply to a comment I made on Twitter which said “your tweet would be interesting if you weren’t a white dude” — despite a white dude’s blog post kicking this whole thing off…

Anyway, I’m not going to argue against diversity. I think diversity is wonderful, and would love it to be more widespread — although not just in conference speaker line-ups, but in the industry* as a whole. Having attended a number of conferences in the past few years, white males are dominant. That’s an industry problem, not a conference problem. Frances Berriman covers this subject much better and in far greater depth than I could in her post Conferences aren’t the problem, which pretty much covers my thoughts on the subject.

Conferences are the tip of the iceberg. They’re loud and noisy and draw attention, so are criticised often, but choosing speakers is complicated by a big problem: the speaker pool is dominated by white males, because that’s how the industry is.

It must be said that many speakers, especially at EdgeConf, are representing the big tech companies; Google, Adobe, Facebook, Mozilla, Opera, etc. So why isn’t any of the ire turned their way? Why don’t they use more diversity in their employment, and encourage more diversity in their dev relations programs? Again, that’s part of the big problem — the recruitment pool is dominated by white males, because that’s how the industry is. And it needs to change.

Industry diversity is as vital as genetic diversity; it aids adaptive evolution and avoids the defects of inbreeding.

Encouraging diversity starts in schools and universities and grass-roots groups, and by the time you get to recruitment or conferences it’s already too late. To fix the big problem we need to get involved in programs like Code Club, which teaches code to children aged 9 – 11, and I vow publicly that I will be joining this year.

Making conferences more fair in the short term is a little easier, and so I humbly offer a few suggestions.

Most importantly, I’m against diversity quotas, as I think they can do as much harm as good; to paraphrase the author of the Zoah blog in the post Just this once, I have to say something about diversity: it can be counter-productive to make people think they’ve been invited to speak purely on the basis of making up a quota.

I’d rather see either one of two approaches: first, a fully-blind submission process, as JSConf do (detailed in their post Beating the Odds — How We got 25% Women Speakers for JSConf EU 2012) — as long as people accept that a blind submission process could also lead to all white male panels, too.

Second, positive discrimination. I know that not everyone agrees with this, but I consider it like so: when choosing speakers, if you can’t decide between two talks on the basis of their merit or relevance, favour the one by a speaker who’s less representative of the majority. As a speaker, I wouldn’t feel threatened by that; I’d work harder to make my presentations better to make sure I’m an automatic first choice.

I thought long and hard about writing this because I don’t want to come across as a person of privilege defending their position, so do let me know if you think I’m talking bollocks. I particularly welcome comments from women and black and ethnic minorities**.

* When I talk of ‘the industry’ I mean in Europe and the USA, the market I know; obviously the white male bias isn’t the same worldwide, although the male bias probably is.

** I probably shouldn’t have to explain that this is a joke.

3 comments on
“On Diversity in Conferences”

  1. RT @stopsatgreen: Thought long and hard, then blogged: On Diversity in Conferences http://t.co/eQJBIUmf

  2. RT @stopsatgreen: Thought long and hard, then blogged: On Diversity in Conferences http://t.co/eQJBIUmf

  3. GREAT READ!!!! I really enjoyed you calling out “industries” as the issue for the lack of diversity at conferences. As a white woman I’m a excited to find conferences that will help enhance my understanding of white privilege, and tools to better challenge the racism around me.